Invisible ink no 257: Cecil Smith


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Sometimes an author becomes a household name for exploring a single subject, but authors are defined by their curiosities and may have many strings to their bow. Often they bewilder their publicists, who have to break it to readers that their favourite writer’s next book will not be about the SAS but flower arranging. Joanne Harris still finds the word “Chocolat” inserted into her name but began with a horror novel and currently writes fantasy. Roald Dahl is remembered best for his children’s books but wrote horror and the screenplay for You Only Live Twice.

Cecil Scott Forester was the pen-name of Cecil Louis Troughton Smith, born in Cairo in the last year of the 19th century. Forester came to know Dahl while working in Washington for the British Information Service, writing propaganda to encourage the USA to join the Allies.

A stream of novels and volumes of short stories caught the public imagination and tagged him as a writer of wartime experiences and naval encounters. He created the seasick Horatio Hornblower, a fictional Royal Navy officer fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. The character was an amalgam of a number of naval heroes. His adventures were inspired by a copy of the Naval Chronicle which explained that, because of the time it took to send messages across the globe, two countries could be at war in one area and at peace in another. Consequently Hornblower was always at sea when a great naval victory occurred elsewhere.

It was a clever idea and Hornblower was a wonderful character who appeared in 17 books by my count. But Forester wrote outside of this series as well. He penned The African Queen, filmed with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, and he tackled crime novels. At first there appeared to be just two volumes. In Payment Deferred, an impecunious bank clerk crippled by his wife’s spending grows rich after poisoning his wealthy nephew, but there’s a nasty sting in the tail. The book was filmed with Charles Laughton. In Plain Murder, three advertising executives kill a colleague to hide a bribery charge. Then, in 2003, the manuscript for a third crime novel came to light. The Pursued is a psychologically bleak tale of obsession and jealousy set in the grim London suburbs of 1935. All three volumes have now been published by Penguin, and reveal Forester to be a master of English noir.